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Thieves Among Us: Designers Stealing from Designers

This week, it was brought to my attention that two of my favorite design portfolio sites had been outright copied not once but many times by scammers claiming to be designers.


Let’s take a look at the damage:

I’m sure that many of you have seen designer Rob Morris’s professional website: Digital Mash. It has been featured in countless blogs and articles because of it’s original, user-friendly, and exceptionally creative design. Check out Rob’s website, and then take a look at the copycat (I’ve purposely not linked to the copycat site – this person does not deserve web traffic for his actions):

Here is the original Digital Mash site:

mashoriginal

And, here is the copycat:

mashcopy

Another victim this week was Jason Reed, a seriously talented designer with another extremely popular website. He also can be found in endless galleries featuring beautiful portfolio designs. His site is not only extremely well-designed and visually pleasing, but it is one of the most user-friendly sites I’ve ever visited. Jason found as many as ELEVEN copycats. Compare the real Jason Reed site to two of the worst copycat sites:

Here is the original Jason Reed site:

reedoriginal

And, here are the copycats:

reedcopy1

reedcopy2
It’s disgusting. As designers, we are aware of the time and effort it takes to create websites like these. How could someone have the nerve to copy and paste another designer’s copy, images, code and ideas — and then try to pass themselves off as a designer?

As I write this, I’m sure Jason and Rob are working diligently to get these sites removed from the web. But, how many other designers are being ripped off?

How can I help?

If you spend enough time perusing the CSS and Flash galleries, you probably remember some of your favorite designs. If you spot a copycat, please contact the original designer! They have a right to know that they are being copied. It is important that we all work together to stop this type of behavior.

What are the laws?

I’m not going to pretend to be a copyright expert, but anything original that you write or create belongs to YOU. You don’t need a copyright symbol, or to pay anybody. It is yours and nobody else has a right to use it without permission. Here is an exceptionally easy to understand article on the laws of copyright as it applies to the web: What Every Webmaster Needs to Know About Copyright Law. Here is another resource on Website Copyright that includes links to Internet Cases, Take Down Notices, How to Protect your Website, and the current Copyright Laws. This article also does a good job of explaining the laws: 10 Big Myths about copyright explained. And, this is one of my favorites: an interview with a legal expert specializing in graphic design: Hey, You Stole My Website Design!

Here are some more helpful articles (accompanied by some great comments) to help you understand the laws and protect yourself:

And here are some more examples of serious rip-off artists:

There are also quite a few software packages out there claiming to protect sites from hackers, copycats, or thieves. I’ve never used any of them, so I don’t feel like I can recommend any of them, but if any Creative Opera readers have any advice, or can recommend any tested software, I’d greatly appreciate it! Please also feel free to share your stories, or any other links that might shed some light on this subject.

Here’s to originality!


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33 Responses

Thieves Among Us: Designers Stealing from Designers…

As a designer, it is my assumption that all other designers are honest, hardworking, creative people. Apparently I am wrong. This week, it was brought to my attention that two of my favorite design portfolio sites had been outright copied not once but …

03.27.09

Could it be that they all bought the same templates and just modified them slightly?

Manda Reply:

Hi Scott,
That could be the case in some instances, but not this time. In general, it is frowned upon for any designer to use a template – it would be more understandable for a developer or a print designer. If you are claiming to be a web designer, you should be able to design your own site, and I think most people assume that a designer site is original. However, I’m sure there are plenty of “designers” out there using templates.

But with these two particular samples, I know that templates weren’t involved. Rob and Jason are exceptionally talented, and I can assure you that these original designs were created from scratch.

03.27.09

Unfortunately you can’t legally do anything about copycats… it sucks but oh well. I do have a suggestion… feel proud. Your design was so good, that out of millions and millions of sites, someone chose yours to steal. If it bothers you that much – make a new design. So many people follow trends and lack creativity… you have to expect this type of behavior. I’ve seen many sites that mimic ones i’ve made, but then again, I make 5 sites per week, so I’ve had my variety of designs. I’ve learned to deal with people like this by just stopping my complaining… it’s not worth it. If they took the time to program their site and make images to fit in their site “template” – then more power to them. It just sucks they don’t know how to make their own crap.

do you have links to the sites that were the thieves? Did you compare the source and css?

03.27.09

Haha wow, this is pretty incredibly lame. I can’t say that I’m surprised or that it’s anything new though. That being said, I think this subject warrants a little further examination.

For someone like me (who is primarily a print designer), I used my portfolio site as an opportunity to teach myself the rudimentary bare minimum of CSS. HTML, and the WordPress platform I would need to get something I could be proud of up on the web. I then went about the rather daunting challenge of trying to make a site that played off of my printed personal self-promotional materials. Because I honestly had NO clue about web implementation when I started the process, WordPress was definitely a good in-road for me and allowed me to not have to start completely from scratch. Some people prefer Movable Type and other blog back-end software, but they are all tools designed to make things easier on folks who don’t think in code. Nothing wrong with that.

As far as “templates” go, I think that starting with a framework (again, in my case a WordPress theme) can also be helpful, especially if Web Design isn’t your forté. All types of designers benefit from (and should have) a portfolio site in this day and age, but remember the point is to highlight your work. If you’re utilizing stock imagery, illustrations, or templates, the key (and ethically/legally correct) thing is to make sure you are upfront about where your source material came from. For example, I used one of WooThemes’ great premium WordPress themes as the skeleton for my own portfolio site. Obviously I spent an incredible amount of time heavily altering it to make it my own, but I made sure that I credited the source material at the bottom of the site. A small “Designed by JMD & WooThemes” sufficed, and I’m completely fine with having started from a template. The big difference is that I used content MEANT for that purpose. The above examples are blatant theft of CONCEPT — a.k.a. Intellectual Property — and it’s simply never OK to do that. Never.

Like it or not, cut & paste culture in the arts (visual, aural, you name it) is the order of the day — sampling, recycling, reworking, mashing up, yadda yadda yadda — is deeply ingrained in our modern world. That’s not going anywhere, believe that. And honestly, I have no problem with that as long as it’s done creatively, as ethically as is possible, and that those engaging in the practice hold themselves to a set of high creative standards (i.e. make it yours).

Basically, people just need to be HONEST about their sources, and let their work speak for itself. If you aren’t happy with your capabilities as a designer, then work at getting better. If you have been working at it and you still can’t hack it, then maybe it’s time to get honest with yourself and move on to new pursuits. Because ripping other people off isn’t going to get people ANYWHERE, and honestly what do these folks expect to gain from this? They will eventually be caught and outed (like those above), sued if they rip off the wrong organization, or find themselves in WAY over their heads when they are unable to deliver any original ideas or content of their own. Bottom line: it’s just lame. How about showing a little pride, folks?

And for the record, the rip-off sites up there are obviously second-rate. The parts that have been altered (the typography, illustrations, et. al.) are the weak, ill-conceived, and just plain not-working elements of the “new” designs. And while I would be furious if I was blatantly ripped off too, I think the real emotion I’m feeling from all of this is pity for the uncreative folks who are apparently incapable of even doing their most basic job (self-promotion) in an original way. Just remember guys, Karma is a bitch, and it’s only a matter of time before your reputation as a hack catches up with you. Again, I would urge people who feel the need to engage in this kind of practice to take a long hard look at themselves, and to show respect to the people they’ve stolen from and (more importantly) themselves.

OK, I’m done.

-jm

03.27.09

I think this is just a case of ethics, as in the cases shown here, blatently copying someone elses design as they had done is just pure laziness and like JM said, will eventually come back to bite them in the ass when they can’t deliver what the clients want, or they get caught out. Reputation is everything and a bad reputation would be to hard to get rid of, once tarred with that brush and it’s over for the most part. Ethically it’s just wrong to rip off someone else’s design, but in some way, then aren’t we all thieves? What is actually original, what hasn’t been done before? When we are learning do we not take inspiration from other sites and design idea’s? Do we not study the market and look for popular trends? Isn’t the two or three column layout just a copy of the style adapted by millions of websites? Did you design and load your own font?

To some degree we all copy as we learn, how else could we learn? It’s impossible to be completely original. As a designer, using a template should be a no-no, but sometimes is probably the most efficient allocation of time. Making a template from scratch is not only extremely time consuming but is also a major head-wreck (as I’m finding out!) I started using wordpress, because I wanted to get away from the table-based layout style that I was taught to do. I’m constantly reading how this type of design is frowned upon by the community at large, so I made the switch and wordpress seemed like a good option. I could have very easily adopted one of the millions of templates available or just copied someone elses style, but to me this would have been wrong and I would feel like a liar, promoting myself using design I haven’t created is just ripping off my clients, and I wouldn’t want to put myself in a position where my reputation is at stake. But how do I come up with a totally unique design? I have to take some inspiration from the sites I have seen. The layout, the format, the style of the menu’s etc. Just because I design all the graphics and choose the colours myself, does it mean that it is completely mine? Of course not, but taking the time to learn how to do it properly is what counts. None of us are completely original, but we work with ethics, we learn and we adapt, that is how we make it our own. Giving credit where credit is due is also a must. Once my design is finished and up and running then the appropriate mentions will be there for all to see, thanks to those that have helped me learn and credit to those that have inspired me. I will never claim to have a totally original idea, mainly because I don’t think it is possible anymore, but I have set myself ethical boundaries which I will never cross. Wouldn’t the world be a lovely place if we all thought like this, unfortunately we don’t. If we do something well, then we are going to be copied and ripped off at some point. We just have to take it as a sign that it was done well, maybe you can even take it as a compliment. If you set yourself high moral and ethical standards and you stick to them, then the biggest reward you will receive is in the knowledge that you have done so.

It’s becoming harder and harder to be a purist in this market, especially when so many are flouting the standards. I recently lost a client because there is a guy here advertising web design for between €39 – €79 including hosting. Why should he pay me far more to come up with an original concept when he can simply choose one of many thousands of templates and have a site up and completed in a few hours, was his question! I just let him go, no point getting into an argument about it, we obviously see things in a different light and I was never going to convince him. So, what do I do? Do I stick to my moral standards and miss out on clients, or do I become a template jockey and flood the market with cheap options? The latter is not an option for me, but this question is on the minds of many a young graduate or fledgling designer. For me, it’s a cop-out, the easy option, and one I would never find myself taking. I’d rather go work in a factory than become a sell-out pumping out cheap design and wrecking the market for those who have spent many years studying and learning how to do this properly. I am by no means and experienced pro in the market, I consider myself to be a fledgling designer, even though I have been learning for four years now. But, I started out with the morals that my parents taught me as a child and that is something that will never change.

So, in conclusion, is it ok to copy? We have to copy some things. We paraphrase, we stylise in the way that those who inspire us do, as long as we do it with our own take on it, then surely we can’t be criticised for it. There will always be someone who thinks that unless you do everything completely yourself, then you cannot claim total ownership. In that case then we shouldn’t even be using wordpress. Well I just say, that I’m never going to be at that level, where I can ditch a CMS/Blog-tool in order to completely code my own product. The reason, because I’m much happier playing around in photoshop than I am trying to learn all these different coding languages. The more time I spend learning one thing, the less time I spend with another, and I can’t know everything now, can I?

With a slight hint of Irony, I qoute shakespear:

This above all: to thine own self be true

03.27.09

I think the best we can do at the moment is to notify the original author and let them proceed. First, to contact the thieves and ask them to take down the site. Second, to threaten legal action. Imagine getting an email from someone demanding your site be taken down after you paid someone to ‘create’ it. As the owner of the business I’d be pissed! And I’d definitely go after the designer. Of course, if it’s a designer stealing a portfolio – well…

03.27.09

Thank you all for your thoughtful responses. I think you all make very valid points, and I can understand where you are coming from. In reply to some of your comments:

It is true. We all take inspiration from one another. We are all held to the same working space, and the same basic fonts and colors. Of the millions and millions of websites and designs out there, it is becoming increasingly difficult to come up with a truly original idea. That is why many blogs, including mine, do features on design trends. The grungy torn paper trend is huge right now. It’s hard to find a portfolio site that isn’t using it. There is however, a very distinct line between taking inspiration and downright copying. Look at the music industry. How many truly original songs are there? Don’t you hear inspiration from older music in each new song? Of course. But, if someone puts out a CD with the exact same melody and the exact same words as a past musician, I think we can hardly call that a matter of inspiration – or running out of options. These two examples were blatant copies. It was an exact replica of layout, typography, images and copywriting. There is no excuse for this – in any environment. Was the code copied also? I have to admit, I didn’t look. But, I have a hard time believing that someone would copy to this extent and then go in and change the code?!?!? I mean the one guy actually photoshopped his face over Jason’s self-portrait!

Should the designers feel proud that their work was good enough to copy? I suppose. But they probably also felt proud when their work was featured in magazines and on websites – and they were given actual credible praise for their portfolio sites. I don’t think this was the kind of compliment they were looking for. It bothered me in 4th grade when other kids would copy my work, and my teacher said the same thing: Imitation is the greatest form of flattery. As a 4th grader, I thought that was bull. Now, I can see her point – in a 4th grade classroom. This is a completely different situation. These copycats are making money off of their copies. They are taking clients from REAL designers by luring them in with COPIED portfolio sites. And part of what makes these two sites so great is their originality. There are a ton of portfolio sites out there that have the same look and feel. That’s fine. That’s because they are drawing inspiration from one another. But, Jason and Rob managed to come up with something original – something we don’t see every day. And, I’m sure that wasn’t easy. I know that plenty of people have drawn inspiration from their sites – but these exact replicas are not inspired, and they are not a compliment. It is disrespectful and underhanded to take another person’s work and call it your own – especially when you are selling yourself as a web designer.

Is it obvious which is the better design? Yes, side-by-side it’s easy to tell who the real designer is. But, clients landing on these copycat sites don’t have the advantage of seeing the side-by-side comparison. They were copied from such well-designed sources, that even with their addition of mismatched images, the end product is better than 75% of the websites out there. When someone lands on their site, they are thinking, wow, these guys are good. And, that’s not fair.

As for templates, I think that is an entirely different subject. I’m actually not against templates. I think they have their place. They increase speed, they decrease price for clients, and they ensure solid reliability. When a person is purchasing a template, that design was put out there to be purchased as a template. It was created to be copied. There is no shame in that. Copy and use templates all day if you like. As long as the client knows it’s a template, and the design was meant to be used as a template, template away. There is still some skill involved with customizing a template. I think they are especially great for print designers, non-designers, and for those with clients who can’t afford original design. I don’t think they should be passed off as original design, but I don’t think that a designer needs to be ashamed of using them. This blog was based off of a WP template. I customized it (a lot) but knew that a template was the best solution for me in this case. I’m not a PHP designer, and even though I am learning, I know my programming skills aren’t where they need to be to create a blog like this. A template was a good decision for me in this case. My portfolio site, on the other hand, will be created from scratch. Either way – this was not a case of inspiration, template implementation, or even (in my opinion) imitation – this was a copy-paste job – and no matter how you look at it, it’s wrong.

In the end, there are always going to be people who do things the right way, and people who don’t. I wanted to put up this post to make people aware – and to ask that you take action if you see an outright copy such as these. I also hope that you will do some searches online to make sure that your own sites haven’t become victim to this type of behavior.

I truly appreciate all of your comments, and I’m thoroughly enjoying the discussion that this topic is creating. Keep the comments coming!! Thanks, Manda

03.27.09

@Jack McDanel

Haha I’ve heard the “aren’t we all thieves” argument again and again, and not just in the realm of the visual arts. The answer to that is, of course, we absolutely are. In fact, when I was teaching I loved to throw around the old Picasso quote about good artists borrowing and great artists stealing — although I always felt (and tried to explain) that the real idea behind that quote is that it’s actually impossible to really steal in a fine arts sense (short of putting your name on someone else’s work — which is exactly what the folks above have done)… that no matter where you draw inspiration from, it is still being filtered through your own brain/hand/point of view and will ultimately end up as your work anyway.

But you and I both know the “we are all thieves” bit is a pretty obtuse argument in this context… this has never been an issue of purism. I don’t even think the kind of purism you refer to is even possible. Ever. If you’re asking “did you design the font?” you might as well ask “did you design your own layout software?” etc. You could go on forever like that. And frankly, it’s just not that esoteric. It’s damned simple:

Do the right thing.

Unless you’re a sociopath, I think we all know what that means. Alright, I’ve put more energy in to this subject than I ever wanted to, and on that note I’m done.

jm

03.27.09

We also came along this:

Original:
http://www.toby-powell.co.uk/

Rip-off:
http://www.osamaahmed.com/

Although it’s not there anymore, Osama even accused Toby of stealing his own design. How about that, huh?

Manda Reply:

What a great (and terrible) example. This is another downright copy. Thanks so much for sharing it!

03.27.09

What’s the deal with all the ripping off being done by folks of middle eastern descent?

Manda Reply:

I’m sure there are plenty of copycats all over the world. In fact, I have received emails from people in the US telling rip-off stories from their jobs or their clients (right here in America) – some taking legal action. They wanted to share, but were worried about the consequences if their lawyer, job, or boss found out they were posting information publicly.

03.27.09

haha I was kidding! somebody’s gotta work on developing that “sarcasm” html tag… :)

Manda Reply:

:) Sorry John! You’re right – that tag would be useful! Wonder who we talk to about that….

03.27.09

As well I’ve been a victime of this too. Thank for the resources, After seeing some of the exemple here it seem as if alot of the thieving are Web Developer. One of my design for a client was stolen by a Web Developer. I’m located in France and the laws are different over here plus I notice more and more web developer doing this in other country and getting away with this. Sad…

Manda Reply:

I’m sorry you’ve been had to experience this. Hopefully, with enough exposure, some of the laws will be changed to protect original design to a greater extent. It seems the best thing we can do is to all stick together, and always notify a designer if you see their design has been stolen or copied. I know that it is a common occurrence with logo design as well. Seems some “creative” people should have chosen a different field of work!

03.27.09

I’ve always done a slow burn when I see a web designer’s site using a template or a blatantly (and badly) ripped copy. My god, if you can’t design your own site, how can you design a site for a client? And those ‘lance sites out there are rife with requests to clone various and sundry sites. And who is taking these clearly unethical jobs? Sheesh.

The only thing we can count on is karma and the vigilance of those among us with spines and senses of ethics and pride.

I just now stumbled onto this great site via Twitter. I’m birdwalking through all the great articles. :)

Manda Reply:

I agree completely. I have to admit, there have been times that I’ve been forced to use a template. It’s always a case of a client who can’t afford original web design, so to stay within their budget, I customize a purchased template for them instead. It’s not as much fun as creating something from scratch, but it’s better than turning someone away. And, even though I often customize them to a great extent, you won’t see those jobs in my portfolio as original work. If a project started as a template, I’ll always say so. At least with templates, they are made to be purchased and used. It is all legal and legit. These unauthorized copies of original design work are just disgusting, and you’re right, it is all on the consciences of the people doing the stealing. On a side-note, I’m glad you’re liking the blog!! I’m so glad you stopped by!

03.27.09

Hello again. For the 2nd time, Toby Powell’s site layout is copied.

Toby’s site: http://www.toby-powell.co.uk/

Culprit’s site: http://www.derrickottenbreit.ca/

Derrick even copied Toby’s Twitter background layout!

Toby’s: http://twitter.com/tobypowell

Culprit: http://twitter.com/dottDesign

Manda Reply:

Thanks for these additional examples! Toby seems to be right up there with Rob and Jason in number of copies floating around out there. It has to be so frustrating to create something so original, do all of the hard work to market it, and then just have it taken from under you – over and over.

03.27.09

http://www.derrickottenbreit.ca/ a blatent ripp off of my own website :http:www.toby-powell.co.uk

Manda Reply:

Thanks for stopping by! I’m so sorry you’re having to deal with all of this. Have you been able to contact these people to have them take down the copied sites?

[...] This has happened among others like Fuel Your Creativity and there are also posts on it such as this one. I just wanted to highlight a few and note that the design community on Twitter is pretty strong [...]

03.27.09

I like how the one says “Imagination for hire” when obviously they have none.

Manda Reply:

LOL! Absolutely!

03.27.09

I can’t believe people went out of the way to take/create a picture sitting in a chair with a laptop like Jason’s site just so they could ‘properly’ steal his design and make it work for them. Makes me sick! Ha!

Manda Reply:

I know! It’s crazy! Did you notice the one guy who just pasted his head on Jason’s body? Classic hilariousness!

03.27.09

@nOeL

Dear Toby and Neol,

Mr Toby I have already accepted that the designer who made the design for me had copied your design then with in the given time period of yours i change it as I promised you. So may I asked why people are still accusing that I have copied your design.

I request you to please ask your friends not to do so. where as i m planning to work with you soon enough.

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03.27.09

i agree with you! i stick to very simple fonts because otherwise i feel like it can very easily scream “bad middle school powerpoint!”

lauren
http://www.papergownfashion.blogspot.com

Lauren Reply:

oops somehow i commented on the wrong article… my apologies!

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